Mank: Muddled Monochrome and Maladroit Musings

Discussions abound have erupted across the internet about David Fincher’s latest film for Netflix, Mank — ranging from the fidelity of the film to its setting and characters, to the personal relationship of Fincher to the material, which was penned by his father before his death in 2003, and the artistic choices made to better approximate the same visual grandeur achieved by the film to which this story is so sincerely indebted. The art of storytelling is a fickle one, particularly in accordance with historical representation and even more so for those already captured in such thorough posterity. Mank, the story of a washed-up, over-the-hill Hollywood screenwriter battling his addiction with alcohol while tasked with penning what is now referred to as one of the greatest films of all time, reckons with the ideals of legacy, authorship, iconoclasm, integrity, and autocratic manipulation — themes which all directly correlate to that of its towering predecessor. In so doing, the two Finchers invite greater scrutiny by constantly evoking the lauded film of the late Hollywood era while simultaneously attempting to avoid a direct narrative about the production of the famous film. Instead, a greater portion of the film is dedicated to recreating the ostentatious environment of Old Hollywood, and to expose its corrupt underbelly by aligning the political quarrels of the era with those of today. 

Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

Herman J. Mankiewicz was a prolific Hollywood screenwriter with a background in journalism before heading west in the late 1920s just as the movie capital was cementing its stature as the Mecca of American culture. He was nominally successful working on a variety of screenplays throughout the 1930s, including a notable co-authorship for the star-studded George Cukor film Dinner at Eight (1933), but his real claim to fame would come the following decade, when he was enlisted by a young upstart from New York to write the screenplay for his directorial debut. The legacy of Citizen Kane (1941), with its cinematic innovation, irreverent story structure, political savvy, and titanic impact on not only film history, but pervasively on popular culture overall, has become the legacy of everyone who so much as carried the script from one department to another. Mankiewicz is no exception, particularly because his role in conjunction with the film’s co-author — the wunderkind upstart from New York to which all other major credits are ascribed: the illustrious Orson Welles — has become the topic of much debate in the eighty-plus years since its release. Much of this is due to an infamously contested essay from the prominent film critic Pauline Kael in 1971 titled “Raising Kane,” in which she attributes all credit of Kane’s writing to Mankiewicz despite significant evidence to the contrary. Although slanderous mistruths of Kael’s writing has consistently been proven false, the malfeasance of her defamation has had a permanent impact on the legacy of Kane’s authorship — up to and including the basis for the elder Fincher’s screenplay. This ironic bedrock of character assassination rings loudly throughout Mank, as its narrative about the 1934 California gubernatorial race quickly usurps its portrait of an aged screenwriter coming to terms with his influence and legacy. 

 Gary Oldman in Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

Gary Oldman stars as the weary Mankiewicz, bouncing between his enfeebled status at the Victorville ranch where he penned his version of the screenplay and his bustling perspective of Hollywood high life in the 1930s, including frequent visits to the decadent San Simion, the hillside residence of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and his longtime mistress Marion Davies. Oldman, generally a reliable thespian talent and still riding the wave of his recent Academy Award victory in portraying none other than Winston Churchill, feels oddly out of place in Fincher’s film. His portrayal of Mankiewicz’ drunken bouts feel crude and uncharacteristic. Though it’s true that Mankiewicz was a perennial drunk, a vice which ultimately lead to his untimely death, Oldman’s performance feels hackneyed throughout, lacking vital nuance or personality which so many people ascribed to Mankiewicz even in his inebriated tirades. One can see, however, that the actor is not wholly to blame. For one thing, the material provided is quite lackluster, wanting of the signature wit, intelligence, and general amiability of character Mankiewicz was known for. On paper, Mankiewicz is sketched as little more than a stock caricature of a drunkard without a sense of tragedy or even relative purpose to his plight. Another contribution to the blandness of his portrayal comes from the direction, which is a problem that plagues the rest of the cast as well. Despite claims of attraction to the material because of the character of Mank, the notion of someone struggling with great ability and personal troubles”, Fincher’s direction feels largely detached from the personal turmoil of the character. Greater emphasis seems to be placed on the visual recreation of the period, which is perhaps an even greater failure than the enticement of the audience with a compelling narrative. 

Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

Confoundingly, several technical choices have been made to recreate the visual inventiveness of the legendary Citizen Kane while others were neglected. The most overt point of contention comes from Fincher’s choice to shoot the film in black-and-white, which apparently was the cause of much delay in getting the film greenlit to begin with. This chronically myopic choice, one that so many modern filmmakers linger on without much consideration for how such a decision affects a film, demonstrates yet again a fundamental lack of understanding of what a monochromatic lens offers for a film, and more importantly, the proper way in which to utilize it. Why did Fincher feel that this story merits telling in black-and-white? Is it to better evoke the period in which films were predominantly made in this manner? If so, why is the lack of color the only visual adherence you take to recreation? Why is the film still presented in a widescreen aspect ratio, and shot on digital instead of film? Is it to draw a parallel to Kane, one of the most visually stunning examples of stark cinematic lighting by his own admission? If so, why does he draw inspiration only from the innovative foreground-dimming transitions in the most insipid manner of homage while leaving the film in a grotesque state of muddled grays bereft of Gregg Toland’s stark contrast lighting and awe-inspiring deep focus framing? The film is simultaneously overlit with blinding arc lights and inscrutably darkened by poor exposure, leaving many scenes difficult to discern visually for want of clarity. One often struggles to deduce whether a scene is set during the day or night, interior or exterior, as due to the opaqueness of the cinematography the difference is often negligible. This is not to mention the daftness of the digitally-inserted reel-change markers, which are so laughably out of place and distracting one wonders if they are but a cheeky reminder of their prior demonstration in Fincher’s Fight Club (1999).

Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

Mank’s overt inferiority to the constantly recalled Kane goes beyond the visual. That for which Mankiewicz is often most credited, the irreverent and criss-crossing narrative structure of Kane’s presentation, is half-heartedly attempted here as well. Over the years, Kane has often been unduly credited with inventing such narrative devices as the flashback structure, multi-perspective narration, and the MacGuffin plot twist, with its famous “Rosebud” ending which Welles personally credited Mankiewicz with conceiving. All of these things were not original to Kane, but the attribution of such innovations speaks to how influential and revolutionary the film felt for audiences in 1941. And indeed, it was revolutionary in a number of ways that didn’t merit direct invention. The structure of the story was highly irreverent for the time, opening on a fast-paced montage of the titular character’s life before breaking out into a central framing narrative under which multiple, non-linear flashback narratives would unfold. Mank attempts to recall this unconventional story structure by similarly incorporating a series of flashbacks throughout, but unlike its highly innovative predecessor, the story proceeds with a banal, alternating narrative structure swapping between the slow-going development of the Kane screenplay in the modern setting and the straightforward unfolding of the 1930s narrative in tow. The juxtaposition of these two competing stories does not arise any significant comparison, nor does it create a sense of greater narrative intrigue by cutting away at the end of each major plot development. It simply feels like an uninspired attempt to piggyback off the ingenious conception of the fabled film this story has made its subject by haphazardly echoing its non-conformist style while not really trying achieve any similar semblance of narrative creativity itself; a vain effort from an unseasoned writer to ride the coattails of the same persons he wishes to deride. 

Tom Burke in Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

Speaking of, there is still the rather significant elephant in the room to address. Ever since Pauline Kael’s malignant hit piece on Welles — and indeed, long before then, beginning with the attempted suppression and campaign for destruction of Citizen Kane — Orson Welles’ reputation has been unduly assaulted and maligned. His legacy has long had to fight the notion that Welles was a self saboteur, a directorial despot who constantly ran over budget and over schedule. Rumors persist even that Welles never wished to even complete his films, a ludicrous accusation against any creator, let alone one with as rich a body of work as Welles. It is well known that Kane was Welles’ one shot at total artistic freedom with all the tools of the studio system at his behest — an opportunity for which he was greatly despised by many members of the Hollywood community, given total artistic control and even final cut for his very first picture, all at the age of just twenty-five. After the campaign to suppress Kane, and its subsequent box office disappointment, Welles’ creative control was significantly curbed, and his next film was unjustly mutilated in the cutting room during a federally-appointed absence from the country. Welles was faced with similar tamperings and hurdles throughout the rest of his career. Whenever he worked for a studio again, his films would be inevitably tinkered with or misrepresented in their final presentation. Whenever he worked abroad with greater creative freedom, he was plagued with the issues of poor distribution when he could finally complete a project between innumerable acting jobs which served to self-finance these independent ventures. Despite all of this, Welles nevertheless produced a great many masterpieces thereafter, ones that affirmed his directorial voice and even improved on the techniques first seen in the radical vision of his debut feature. Films like Touch of Evil (1958), a triumphant opus in Film Noir with a multi-faceted narrative about police corruption, racial injustice, and the ambiguity of rational morality which maintained his directorial aptitude despite being barred from the editing process by Universal Studios. Or Chimes at Midnight (1965), the ultimate culmination of Welles’ fascination with the unrivaled artist Shakespeare, crafting together the stories of five different plays to center on the tragic nature of one of his most beloved characters made on a shoestring budget but without sacrificing any of the theatrical grandeur associated with his stories. Throughout his career, Welles succeeded despite all significant throttling to his creative genius. Perhaps it is for this reason that he has become such a target of malicious libel over the years. 

Tom Burke in Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

The climax of Mank partakes in the age-old tradition of demoralizing the figure of Welles through the same inflated attacks that have plagued his character for all these years. He’s depicted as a bully, a tantrum-throwing toddler with an ego greater than that of his stature. When Mankiewicz tells Orson he wants proper onscreen credit the director erupts into an unbridled fury and begins tearing the room apart, inspiring Mank to pen a similar scene for the ending of Citizen Kane. This portrait of Welles, of an all-consuming megalomaniac, is but another in a long list of disparaging depictions of a larger-than-life figure that many people can’t seem to reconcile. The hatred so constantly aimed at Welles seems to come from a place of personal insecurity or general disbelief, that someone as truly talented and enrapturing as Welles simply couldn’t exist. It’s also commonly a case of over-exaggerated rumors and half-truths. Welles was known, in some instances, to be short of patience and relatively demanding, but so constantly is he portrayed in media to be outright villainous and absent of his characteristic warmth and intelligence, that one is obliged to believe the damning narrative against him is more due to indifference to the truth than a sincere attempt to portray him in the honest-yet-flawed manner he truly existed. It’s particularly ironic coming from Fincher, a director who is actually something of an autocratic bully, subjecting his actors to hundreds upon hundreds of needless takes, exhausting the patience of consummate professionals with the wafer-thin excuse of “perfectionism” as his reasoning for unrestrained abuse. It hardly feels necessary for the film to take such disrespectful aim at Welles, especially since his presence in the film is so minimal. But, as is seemingly the case with every other portrayal of the man, when your film needs a comically over-the-top boogeyman, it’s easier to peg Orson Welles yet again instead of taking a more considered approach to your story’s conflicts. 

Gary Oldman in Mank. Dir. David Fincher.

Beyond Mank’s repulsive portrayal of Welles, its failures to engage us with its central character, and the pervasive ugliness of its poorly rendered cinematography, the film is riddled with numerous historical inaccuracies and a general misunderstanding of 1930s Hollywood that the audience this story is primarily targeted for will be most displeased. By attempting to balance three ongoing narratives — the writing of Citizen Kane, the relationship between Herman Mankiewicz, Marion Davies, and William Randolph Hearst, and the 1934 gubernatorial election between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam — it manages to convey only vague summations of each, leaving the audience uncertain of important contextual details pertaining to these key historical events if they’re not previously aware of them going in to the film. The story of Hearst and Davies, and the influence they had on the conception of Citizen Kane, is one of the many fascinating tales from Hollywood legend. That’s why it’s been depicted numerous times in various documentaries, theatrical plays, and even previous narrative films. Mank, however, is too busy hopping back and forth to properly portray this key component of the narrative, and is content to make up connections where it’s expedient despite its lack of basis on actual history. Normally we would be inclined to forgive such fabrications in the name of “artistic license,” but Mank is so stuffed with inaccuracies and misrepresentations that it is yet another example of the film’s complete failure to recreate the rich and lively history of Hollywood and all its magnetic offerings. This failure, combined with a painful visual ineptness, and a general indifference to its thematic underpinnings or investment in exploring internal character conflicts, makes Mank a tedious exercise of idle consideration. If the central question Mankiewicz posited for Kane was, “What is Rosebud?” the query for Mank must be, “What’s the point?”

3/10

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Avid film enthusiast. I watch, write, collect, and dissect all things film and film history. Proud resident of the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I relish in sharing my thoughts and critiques with all of you wonderful people out there in the dark.

Twitter: @DavidAPunch
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